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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

the reasons we love

A couple of weeks ago, I used an excerpt of Beth Kephart’s A Slant of Sun in class to talk about emotional distance—writing the hard stuff without becoming sentimental. (I also used Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” but I’m not going to talk about that right now.)

A Slant of Sun is a memoir about Kephart’s son Jeremy, who very early on began showing signs of a “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” It’s a journey of love, Kephart trying desperately to lead her son out of his interiority and into the world.

This book was recommended to me before I was even pregnant. (Before I ever read anything about pregnancy and motherhood—in those glorious days when I still got nine hours of sleep a night.) But it was recommended because I was having trouble writing about my relationship with my husband, about the different ways we engage (or don’t engage) with the world, about the different ways we react to conflict.

And Kephart blew me away. She was able to describe, through scene and gesture and description, the togetherness and the aloneness that are both so much part of being a couple.

I love this:

“He inhabits his soul with more ease than I do mine, and time does not defeat him: there will be, he predicts, another day. Patient, he waits. An artist, he disdains calculations, expectations, routine, and he is in and out of space and language—prone to laughing, out of the blue, at a joke his brother made, not today or even last week, but decades ago, in El Salvador, at the water hole on the coffee farm beneath a cliff of yellow parrots. He paints and makes the old man young or the plaster bleed or the priest name his assassin, and when my husband makes his guitar sing, he falls deep inside old Spanish, closes his eyes, and finds himself where he wants to be: among the swollen smells of orange rinds and steamed pupusas, above the slow creak of a cotton hammock, near the familiar noise of the domestic help snapping spiders out of bedsheets.”

That’s simply beautiful.

A Slant of Sun was Kephart’s first memoir (and also a finalist for the National Book Award.) She has written a number of other books since then, but her first three memoirs—A Slant of Sun, Into the Tangle of Friendship, and Still Love in Strange Places—make up a trilogy that, she says, “explore the way we love, the reasons we love, the things we do to bring depth and meaning into our vulnerable, implausible lives.”

She’s really on to something here.

I liked Still Love in Strange Places even better than A Slant of Sun, and recommend it to anyone who has lived in or visited Latin America (and even if you haven’t). But I also think it’s an important book because here, again—even more—Kephart is able to look closely at her husband, at herself, and at their relationship, and she does it lovingly and honestly, but never sentimentally. (A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting how hard it is to write about those closest to us, and Kephart puts me to shame.)

From Still Love:

“He is an architect and an artist, not a farmer, and his education is elite and Ivy League, so I can look at him and think his home is where I am, with me, and I can convince myself that I know what he’s suggesting through his tales. But my husband’s home is El Salvador, the rhythms of a language I do not speak, the memories of a jungle that could pitch a man to death, the simple, poetic, unexpected idea that what is to be shared and seen on a sunny day is women rubbing the stains out of their clothes on silver river rocks.”

When I was working on my first draft of Ready for Air, I came back to Kephart’s books because I needed to see that it was possible to show the different ways that D. and I think and inhabit and experience the world. (And indeed, when Stella was in the hospital—and in the months after she was home and I was stuck inside with her, quarantined from the world—we seemed to experience everything differently.) And so I would tumble into Kephart’s books, and think yes, yes. It’s all there.

Her words helped me find a way to write the love (and the togetherness and the aloneness, and the frustration) between me and D. Hmmm, and now I’m thinking this: that my book, though it is largely about learning to love my daughter, is also largely about learning to love and really understand my husband.

The reasons we love, indeed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

four decades of feminist mamas

In my class this week we read Miriam Peskowitz’s “Cheerleader” and an excerpt of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. We’ve now read motherhood pieces published in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and today, and I’m very interested in how the concerns and struggles of women and mothers have changed over the last forty years and how they have remained, largely, the same.

In Of Woman Born, Rich uses journal entries from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and reflects on her feelings of anger and ambivalence towards motherhood and her children. She talks about how her writing was not considered the real work in her family, though she had published two books of poetry by that point. She struggles to make room for her needs as a writer and poet when these needs, and her skills, are not taken as seriously as her role and responsibilities as a mother.

Ronnie Sandroff’s and Jane Shapiro’s pieces, from Mothers, are written from an 80’s feminist perspective. About her story “You’ll Be Crying in a Minute,” Sandroff says: “This was written at a time when motherhood was out of fashion amid all the excitement over women entering and succeeding in the workplace. Those of us who were pioneering working moms got plenty of encouragement for our career advancement, but no acknowledgement for the incredible emotional labor involved in parenting.”

In “Cheerleader,” published in It’s a Girl, Peskowitz is struggles with her young daughter’s obsession with cheerleading. (Peskowitz is also the author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, which is on my reading list.) She moves beyond her personal experience with her daughter to engage in a larger political and gender equity discussion, but the heart of the essay is this: “how do I let my daughter navigate her own world without revisiting the scars of mine?”

I can relate to all of these writers, have felt the anger and frustration of being a mother who writes. I have worried that no one takes me seriously. (I am not exactly bringing home the bacon.) I try not to talk about Stella when I’m around other writers who don’t have children. (God forbid they think I actually like parenting—most of the time.) I have the same worries as Peskowitz. I want Stella to grow up a strong woman, a feminist, but I don't want to squelch her interests, her love of pink and princesses. And I wonder: how do I let Stella navigate her world without imposing my fears and struggles on her?

There is a passage in “Cheerleader” that I love. Peskowitz writes about taking her one-year old daughter into a cafĂ© in 1999 and seeing, on the television, the final of the Women’s World Cup, in which Brandi Chastain rips off her shirt after the US wins. Peskowitz says: “I’m in tears. I can’t help it. Watching women win, watching women take center stage and work hard and sweat and be thrilled and filled with wonder when they succeed, lifting their arms overhead—not with a forced, pretty smile, but with proud, accomplished eyes—that does it for me.”

I can totally relate to this. I have recently become a runner. I’m not very fast, and in fact I think people are often surprised by how much I love it even though I’m so slow. But I do love it: running along the river road when the sun is shining and it’s spring and tons of people are outside. And I love to watch other runners. At marathons, I wait impatiently for the winners, those marathoners with bodies that defy nature. The male runners inspire awe, certainly, but it’s the female runners that make me cry.

When the first women runners pass me with their arms pumping, all sinew and strength, my throat tightens. For a moment I try not to break down, but I can’t help myself. I start thinking about all that women do—and are—all that we’re up against and all we accomplish, and it feels as though these women, these runners, are proving something, for me, for all of us. I hold Stella high in my arms and jump with her, screaming, “Aren’t they amazing? Isn’t that amazing? See what you can do!”

Isn’t that what we all want for our children?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

brooks and my failure with form

I just read Gwendolyn Brooks' Selected Poems for one of my book clubs. I'm actually embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I've read her work. Maybe I read the poem "We Real Cool" in high school, but I'm not even sure. It felt familiar-does that count for something?

There were a couple of her early poems from A Street in Bronzeville that I loved. This is my favorite:

kitchenette building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Holy kit-kats. I love this: "We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,/ Grayed in, and gray." I love the futility and melancholy, and the resignation that is often part of motherhood, and must certainly be part of living in poverty.

The other poem, also from A Street in Bronzeville, that blew my mind was "the mother," a brave and nuanced reaction of the poem's narrator to abortion.

Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1950. (Again, why haven't I read her before now?) And she has these moments of brilliance-the vividness of her language smacking up against the harsh reality of life in the middle of the 20th century, for women, for poor people, for people of color. So, why did I have such trouble with some of her poems?

Form, form, form. I'm not a rhyming poetry kind of gal. (Is that so wrong?) There were poems that I felt would have been so much more effective and powerful if they could have broken out of the strict form of the ballad and sonnet. Some of her couplets felt forced to me. (I can almost see the serious poets I know cringing in the face of my stupidity.)

Now, with that said, I understand why she was so adamant about form. What better way to be taken seriously? And she was. The Pulitzer proves that, doesn't it?

So, I'd be very interested in hearing from any Brooks fans out there. And I'd like to leave you with this wonderful quote from her: "I am interested in telling my particular truth as I've seen it."


Sunday, March 4, 2007

prematurity, disability, and Past Due

I have been thinking about this for a couple of weeks. On February 20th, there was a story on NPR about the gestationally youngest (known) preemie to survive--ever, anywhere. Her name is Amillia and she was born at 21 weeks and 6 days gestation (a little more than half the gestation of a normal pregnancy). She was 9 1/2 inches long (think ball point pen) and weighed 10 ounces.

Amillia is not the smallest preemie to survive. Two years ago, Rumaisa Rahman was born at 25 weeks and 6 days gestation weighing 8.6 ounces (think lighter than a can of pop). The thing that angered me when Rumaisa's story was all over the media was that people kept saying that she was "perfectly normal," and that they expected her to develop "normally."

The focus of stories about extreme prematurity is often on how the babies were "saved," how they're "miracles." But little attention is given to the long-term effects of severe prematurity. The truth is that it remains the #1 cause of disability among newborns.

The thing that I appreciated most when I listened to Amillia's story was the cautionary note in Dr. Paul Fassbach's voice. He said that Amillia's case was specific, and that though she seemed to be doing well, there were still issues that might arise with her brain development. He said the American Academy of Pediatrics did not recommend intervention in the case of babies as early as Amillia, and he "worries that parents of other extremely premature babies will hear Amillia's story and expect the same outcome."

Now, it's hard, nay impossible, for me to say what I would do if I were in Amillia's mother's situation. Amillia was teetering on the edge of viability. Would I say, no, don't do anything to try to save her? Or would I go all out? I don't know. Can anyone know, for sure, what they would do in this situation? The thing is, I know what can go wrong. I am intimately acquainted with the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I know a 23-weeker who had a grade 4 brain hemorrhage, encephalitis, and CP, and who will never speak or walk. But I know 23-weekers who are, except for a slight limp or glasses or math processing problems, fine.

But you can never know. And the question that I keep coming back to (and which makes me very uncomfortable) is this: just because we can save 21 and 22-weekers, should we? How far should we push this? That early, most babies will die, or have severe disabilities. But then there are babies like Amillia.

There is a wonderful memoir called Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy and Birth by Anne Finger, which explores the complexities of disability and reproductive rights. Finger, who won the AWP Award for Short Fiction in 1987 (for her collection Basic Skills), was one of the last people in the U.S. to get polio. In Past Due, the story of Finger's pregnancy and birth of her son are couched in a larger discussion of disability and reproductive rights.

The book is often gritty. Finger never shies away from the hard questions (as I am probably doing here, by turning to her). She writes about a meeting of the Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights where she was asked to speak about disability and reproductive rights. The discussion was tense, and at the end of the meeting, Finger says, "What it all boiled down to was, did I really think that disabled people were as good as everyone else? Was I really saying that a disabled life was worth living? I was too stunned to respond to them very well. What seemed obvious to me--that a disabled life was worth living; that our lives weren't endless misery--seemed dubious at best to them."

When there are complications with her son's birth and he ends up in the NICU, all of these issues come up again.

Finger has written a several other books; the most recent is Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio. I have not read it, but I will. She's not afraid of asking the hard questions, and I need her help.